Why America really needs better conventional forces to deter Iran

Why America really needs better conventional forces to deter Iran
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The anniversary of the killing of Iranian Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani is this weekend. Iranian media is full of commemorations, along with demands for and promises of revenge. Iranian militias in Iraq recently conducted the largest missile barrage against the American embassy in Baghdad in a decade. The United States has sent military reinforcements to the region to deter escalations, but some think that is a mistake. If the United States is serious about refocusing on great power competition and away from the Middle East, they declare, then holding reinforcements from the Persian Gulf is the hard call American leaders must make.

This argument is seductive, but it is dangerous. American strategy must balance great power competition with a need to protect its interests and people around the world. The United States cannot allow its correct policy on China and Russia to starve the Middle East, which is vital to national interests, of essential military resources in the midst of crisis.

A recent article made the case to keep stronger military forces out of the Persian Gulf area concisely and cogently. It argues that Iranian leaders realize American military overmatch, which is “baked into” their strategic calculus. It asserts that the United States can take its time to build the “iron mountain” of forces to achieve a “decisive advantage” over Iran, making the deployment of carriers and bombers before possible attacks unnecessary. The United States does not have the same conventional overmatch over China and Russia, the article states, and so the forward presence of advanced assets is critical to deterring and preventing their rapid military advances that would be difficult to reverse. The United States must resist calls of Central Command for advanced conventional assets and focus them on Asia and Europe, the article concludes.


The need for the forward presence of advanced American conventional forces to deter China and Russia seems unarguable, but the utility of aircraft carriers to deter Moscow in the Baltic States is less obvious. The claim that such forces are not needed to deter or respond to Iranian aggression, however, is difficult to support. Iranian leaders do not doubt the American conventional military overmatch, regardless of the many bombastic statements of its military officials to the contrary. But Iran pays close attention to the presence or absence of carriers, submarines, and other platforms. The United States uses such deployments, including the ostentatious surfaced passage of an Ohio class cruise missile submarine in the Strait of Hormuz, to signal Tehran, which reads those signals.

Those signals are also baked into the strategic calculus of Tehran. When Iran or its proxies attack American forces and allies in the region, it waits for the reaction. If the United States responds with a counterattack, Iran usually stops escalating. If the United States responds by increasing a visible military presence, Iran often holds or reduces the escalation. If the United States does nothing, Iran often continues to escalate.

Abandoning this means of communicating will create a much higher risk of accelerated escalation in the Persian Gulf. It always seems the United States does not need to have advanced conventional platforms in the region, in other words, because their periodic presence helps manage escalation. Nor is it clear that the United States will always have the time to build forces in response to Iranian or proxy attacks, which usually take the form of rocket barrages, kidnappings, assassinations, and attempts to storm American compounds. The reactions are time sensitive.

If American facilities are at risk of being overrun, getting reinforcements to them is an immediate priority. In the worst case, the United States must be ready to conduct a noncombatant evacuation operation. With lives on the line and the risk that hostages might be spirited into the country of Iran itself, American forces must be present and able to get to threatened compounds in hours rather than weeks. Marine Corps amphibious ready groups with expeditionary units are the premier forces for conducting noncombatant evacuation operations. At least one must be near the Middle East whenever there is a risk to American facilities.

Moreover, Iranian advances in the production and use of armed drones and precision missiles also greatly complicate the task of building and protecting any “iron mountains” in the Persian Gulf. The challenges of flowing aircraft, soldiers, munitions and other supplies into bases under missile attacks are severe, and the Iranian missile arsenal is large and capable enough to spark delays and casualties in that effort.


Demonstrating the will and having the ability to retaliate swiftly from carriers and cruise missile submarines that can hover outside the ranges of Iranian missile attacks, unlike American bases in the Persian Gulf, may be crucial to stopping or disrupting the attacks long enough to allow other military assets to arrive and set in the theater.

The idea that the unconventional nature of Iranian attacks and notice of Iranian leaders of American military superiority make the deployment of carriers and bombers to the Middle East unnecessary is attractive, but it is unfounded on closer examination. It ignores the importance that Iranian leaders attach to the presence or absence of advanced American military capabilities not only because of their inherent power but also because of the signals of the will of the United States to respond.

As long as the United States has even a diplomatic presence in the region, let alone a military presence of any kind, and as long as Iran continues to identify expulsion of such American presence from the Middle East by force if necessary as a key objective, the United States must continue to deter escalation and prepare to protect its people. If more capabilities are needed in Asia and Europe, as they almost certainly are, then the United States must find other ways to generate them, including spending money on defense that many would prefer to spend on other priorities.

Frederick Kagan is the director of the Critical Threats Project and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is the author of “Choosing Victory” and an architect of the surge military strategy in Iraq.